The surname of O'BYRNE is of Irish descent from the Old Irish O'Broin, a name meaning 'raven'. They were a foremost sept in Leinster, and prominent in Irish history, especially in resisting the English Conquest. The ancient territory of the O'Byrnes was in County Kildare, but as the Anglo-Normans extended the Pale they were displaced and found a new home in the hills of southern County Wicklow with the sept centre at Ballinacor in the barony of Ballinacor South. Dublin and County Wicklow accounts for the largest number of the families today and there is still a substantial representation of the name in Ballinacor South barony, in and around Aughrim and Tinahely. The name was also locational of a place called Byram, a township in the parish of Brotherton, County York. Early records of the name mention Johannes de Byrom who was listed in the Yorkshire Poll Tax of 1379.
Ireland was one of the earliest countries to evolve a system of hereditary surnames. They came into being fairly generally in the 11th century, and indeed a few were formed before the year 1000.
When the sparse Irish population began to increase it became necessary to broaden the base of personal identification by moving from single names to a more definite nomenclature. The prefix MAC was given to the father's christian name, or O to that of a grandfather or even earlier ancestor. At first the coat of arms was a practical matter which served a function on the battlefield and in tournaments. With his helmet covering his face and armour encasing the knight from head to foot, the only means of identification for his followers, was the insignia painted on his shield and embroidered on his surcoat, the draped and flowing garment worn over the armour. Most of the European surnames in countries such as England, Scotland and France were formed in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. The process had started somewhat earlier and had continued in some places into the 19th century, but the norm is that in the tenth and eleventh centuries people did not have surnames, whereas by the fifteenth century most of the population had acquired a second name.
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